By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
L.A. County supervisors authorized a “tune-up” the county’s planning code last week, a move Santa Clarita environmentalists told them would make it easier to cut down oak trees.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the “tune-up ordinance” which amends Title 22, the county’s planning and zoning code.
The “tune-up” enables county planning officials to make modifications where they deem necessary and to correct what they consider to be discrepancies in the existing code. It allows them to correct typographical errors and clarify provisions spelled out in the code. They can clean it up and make it easier to read, erasing repetitive wording and removing provisions considered outdated.
What the “tune-up” also does, however, is make it easier for developers to remove oak trees, according to Santa Clarita Valley environmentalists who objected to the change.
Some of the changes to Title 22 call for getting rid of the need to notify the public when oak trees are about to be cut down and changing what’s required when it comes to actually replacing them.
If you want to cut down an oak tree you still have to get a permit, but amendments to the code remove the need to have a hearing about your tree-cutting plans.
And, you no longer have to give public notice of your intention to cut the tree down — unless it’s your immediate neighbor, then you have to tell them.
The old oak ordinance spelled out clearly that when you cut down a tree you “shall replace” the tree. The amended code changes the wording from “shall replace” to “may replace at the director’s discretion.”
The changes don’t sit right with some Santa Clarita residents who love their oaks and would rather see tougher rules in place about cutting them down — rules some of them fought hard to put in place.
One such oak tree advocate is Cynthia Harris, past vice president of the Santa Clarita Oak Conservancy, who wrote to the board about her opposition.
Harris reminded the board that she and others worked on the original oak tree ordinance and guidelines for both Los Angeles County and the city of Santa Clarita.
She argued, in her letter, there was no mention of the oak ordinance changes in Tuesday’s agenda title and description and that there was no mention of the need for a hearing for heritage oaks.
“How can the board change the ordinance on the second reading?” Harris asked in her letter.
Others pointed out to the board that the “tune-up ordinance” was about much more than fixing typos and grammar.
“This agenda item is not just a grammar and numbering ‘tune-up,’” wrote Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, or SCOPE, in her letter to the board.
Plambeck urged the board not to approve the section of the Title 22 “tune-up” pertaining to the oak ordinance. She asked them to hold a separate hearing so concerned individuals would have a chance to comment and participate.
“This ordinance will change the requirements for noticing of proposed removals and eases the requirement for oak replacements by making replacement an optional decision of the planning director,” Plambeck wrote.
“We oppose the elimination of these requirements. Changing the oak ordinance/permitting process through a ‘tuning’ update, of which few people are aware, is a failure of public transparency and is not an appropriate means to change a decades-old ordinance to protect native trees.”
On Tuesday, Plambeck spoke to the Board of Supervisors directly — albeit remotely.
“I would just like to ask that this agenda item be pulled,” she told them. “And, that the portions of the oak ordinance that are included not until Page 40 — where no one can find them — be properly noticed in the agenda description.”
“We don’t feel you can make changes to an oak ordinance that would enable the removal of additional trees in an easier fashion,” she said.
Like-minded Santa Clarita residents also made their opposition known in letters submitted to the board.
Frustrated and disappointed
One such letter-writer was Valencia resident Elizabeth Lyon.
The board’s decision to move ahead with the tune-up left her frustrated and disappointed. Reached by phone Wednesday, Lyon said she’s at a loss to explain why supervisors approved it.
“It made me feel as though somebody at the county has a relative in the tree-cutting business,” she said.
In her written comment to the board, she said: “Tell people you are eliminating notice for oak removal and requirements for oak replacement that currently exist in the agenda description so that they know what you are proposing.”
James Danza, representing the Friends of the Santa Clara River, wrote to the board a day before the hearing asking them to “exclude the portions of this agenda item that pertain to changes in oak permitting to allow further review of this important issue.”
Friends of the Santa Clara River was founded 30 years ago, with the hope of protecting the Santa Clara River.
SCOPE filed a Brown Act violation notice last May alleging the county failed to involve the public about changes to the oak ordinance. The litigation is ongoing. The Brown Act was passed in 1953, guaranteeing the public a right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.